War games and simulation exercises can reveal what might occur if China were to invade Taiwan. But, they provide scant justification for why Taiwan is vital and deserving of defense. A new study investigates what the United States would lose if it lost Taiwan and what might follow.
The first thing to know is that Taiwan is now a very important issue. U.S. political and military leaders are increasingly convinced that the Taiwan Strait is the world’s strategic nerve center. No other hotspot is so structurally unstable, politically irritating, and likely to drive the world’s superpowers into war.
The second thing is that an invasion is no longer unthinkable. President Xi Jinping is showing his intent to annihilate the Taiwan government in both words and deeds.
A large body of evidence suggests that China is preparing to do something terrible. The concern is growing in Washington that it is no longer a question of whether Xi plans to attack Taiwan but when and how.
Think to the end
Conflict is not inevitable, and whether or not the Chinese high command operates according to a cast-iron calendar is debatable. From what we know, Xi is convinced that a coercive campaign will succeed in undermining the Taiwanese government’s ability to resist annexation.
What would happen down the line is rarely considered in discussions on Taiwan’s defense. In the event that the PRC successfully invades Taiwan, what do you think would happen? And how would that impact U.S. national security?
Naturally, much would depend on how the war played out and what the U.S. did (or failed to do), but several troubling implications would remain constant regardless of how it happened.
Taiwan is of enormous strategic value to the United States because of its extraordinary political character, unique military and intelligence capabilities, critical role in global high-tech supply chains, and its geographic location in the heart of East Asia.
Regardless of how the Chinese Communist Party captured the ROC (Taiwan), the world would have lost a leading democracy, and the region’s security architecture would have been altered. It would be a traumatic—and likely catastrophic—event in the history of American foreign policy.
When democracy dies
Taiwan is considered one of the world’s freest countries. In 2022, Taiwan received a worldwide freedom index score of 94 from Freedom House (for comparison, the United States ranked 83rd and China last).
The United States and many other countries enjoy strong relations with Taiwan, which governments regard throughout the democratic world as a responsible and like-minded partner and a model of good governance.
Yet, if China were to capture Taiwan, the island would become part of China’s seized territory and subject to the one-party dictatorship. Taiwan, the free and independent nation, would be no more, and an oppressive police state would take its place.
It is to be expected that the Communist Party will employ terror tactics against the local Taiwanese population. The ubiquitous crowd control and surveillance complex would likely be installed in Xinjiang and Tibet.
A devolved local government under the direct control of Beijing would govern the islands, and all territory formerly administered by the ROC government would be heavily policed.
If the world were to lose one of its strongest democracies, there would be a widespread fear that authoritarianism would rise. Any number of regimes might suffer a credibility crisis if Taiwan were lost.
After losing one of its finest democracies, the world community sensed that anti-liberal forces were gaining ground and authoritarianism was expanding. Many governments could endure a confidence crisis if Taiwan were to be lost.
Loss of military and intelligence capabilities
If Taiwan falls, the PLA will occupy its military bases and intelligence facilities will. There is widespread speculation that Chinese naval vessels, including submarines, will use Taiwanese deep-water ports as home bases. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would greatly benefit from the naval bases on Taiwan’s east coast since it would have unrestricted access to the Pacific’s deep waters for the first time in its history.
Following annexation, Chinese bombers and missile units based in Taiwan could hold off U.S. forces in the event of surprise raids. There is a chance that surface action groups and PLA Naval aviation units stationed in Taiwan and the Penghu Islands may threaten a blockade of Japan and South Korea by severing their primary naval lines of communication.
The upper part of the South China Sea would be “plugged,” providing a maritime stronghold for PLA ballistic missile submarines and further reinforcing Chinese military dominance in Southeast Asia.
The United States would lose access to a critical information-gathering center, and the U.S. intelligence community would lose its main window into China. Taiwan is an irreplaceable source of Mandarin training and information from all sources about China.
Without Taiwan, the Pentagon and CIA would likely start churning out flawed analytical products, leaving policymakers misinformed and prone to strategic mistakes. U.S. intelligence services could experience a huge failure spike in the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
Shattered supply chains
Today, Taiwan is America’s eighth-largest trading partner and a pillar of our knowledge-based economy. A cross-straits war would likely cost millions of Americans their jobs and trillions of dollars lost.
The loss of Taiwan would profoundly affect the health of the U.S. economy and could trigger an economic depression in the U.S. and around the world.
A recent report claimed that “Taiwan may be the most critical link in the entire tech ecosystem” due to its dominance in the chip industry, original equipment manufacturing, original design manufacturing, and its role as a central hub for producing related materials to technology. In other words, whoever controls Taiwan will control the future of the Internet and the world economy.
Harsh geostrategic realities
The PRC reportedly carved out a powerful sphere of influence in Asia by seizing Taiwan using violent methods. This may have significant repercussions for international law, the concept of national self-determination, and the concept of state sovereignty.
The fall of Taiwan would likely undermine the perception of America’s global diplomatic and military leadership, straining (and possibly breaking down) the U.S. alliance system and the United Nations system. China would probably be seen as the most powerful nation in the world and the main driver of the 21st century.
Leaders would experience unease as Beijing moved towards its vision of a centralized and authoritarian new world order. The nuclear arms race would almost certainly accelerate and could spiral out of control. It would be a new era of empires. And the jungle rules.
America has a vote
We must carefully consider the consequences of failure to understand why it is important to deter Beijing from attacking Taiwan. Facing the existence of bleak scenarios is only the first step. The next step is to act to prevent aggression before it culminates in avoidable war.
Given Taiwan’s strategic importance, the U.S. administration should evaluate the benefits of stationing at least 1,500 special operations personnel and marines in Taiwan for training, advice, and liaison reasons.
Boat visits, joint patrols in the Taiwan Straits, and routine delegations of senior Washington leaders to Taiwan are other low-cost, high-impact options. Only bold activities can upset Xi Jinping’s calculations and shake his confidence.
The worst thing Washington could do is to lend too much weight to Beijing’s “red lines,” which violate international law and are meant to render Taiwan more defenseless and easily conquerable.
To protect the vital interests of their own nation, American leaders must thwart those of the Chinese government. Taiwan’s future may be questioned, but its downfall is surely something the United States cannot afford.